Will Chloe's sixteenth birthday in quarantine be a disaster?
|Joe’s mission was to keep the peace between his wife June, his ten year old daughter Emily, his twelve year old son Sam, and his fifteen, no, sixteen year old today, monster from hell, Chloe, to the end of quarantine. He missed his job. It seemed like a beach party in comparison.
Chloe drifted past him without a word.
He sighed, checked the time, and edged over to June. “How ominous is that?” he asked, ignoring the whiff of chardonnay from her juice box.
“Like tip toeing around a grenade with the pin pulled.”
“Should we start now?”
She shrugged. It gave him a little thrill. Hair sticking out, no makeup, stained bathrobe and bunny slippers, she looked fantastic. Locked in this cage for almost two weeks, without a shred of privacy, he felt like a starving dog on a chain staring at a juicy steak dangling just out of reach.
He shook himself and tapped Sam. His son flipped up his visor. “What? Can’t you see I’m in the middle of a game?”
“Help Emily get the presents.” He ignored the sullen scowl. “Scoot.”
Emily clapped her hands in delight.
“June?” His wife unlatched the cupboard, dug around in the back and emerged with a square box.
Her glare could have cut steel.
“Could you join us please?”
Her eyes rolled.
Emily snatched a pink box from Sam. “Can I go first?” She pressed the present into Chloe’s hands. Chloe pulled the ribbon, opened it, and held up a white tee shirt adorned with a sparkly, um, unicorn?
“I made it myself.” Emily beamed.
“What, am I twelve years old?” Chloe tossed the shirt aside. Emily’s bottom lip trembled.
“Chloe, that was mean,” June snapped.
“Sam?” Joe prompted.
Sam pulled a small box out of his pocket. “Here.”
Chloe looked at it like a poodle had peed in her hand. “A deck of cards? He didn’t even wrap it.”
“They’re Dynamo cards. There’s some really good ones. Triple scores.”
“Whatever.” She let the pack go.
“Mom, if she doesn’t want them, can I have them back?”
June opened her box. “Happy birthday, sweetheart.” How did she hide that beautiful cake from three ravenous children all this time? It oozed the most delicious rich chocolate smell. He tried not to drool.
Joe checked the time. June eyed him, wary. He never told her what he got. He handed Chloe a thin rectangular box. She opened it, held out a sparkly short black dress, and burst into tears. What now? The lady in the shop said it was the latest fashion and charged him accordingly.
“Where am I supposed to wear this? I can’t go outside. I can’t see my friends. I can’t even have candles on my stupid cake!”
June tried to console her, but Chloe pushed her away.
“This is the worst day of my life.” There weren’t even any doors to slam.
“Of course we can’t have candles,” Sam said.
“Sam,” his mother hissed. “Do not poke bears in cages.”
“She’s an idiot.”
Murder in her eyes, Chloe grabbed the cake and cocked her arm for a champion throw.
Joe caught her arm before she could give Sam the cake in the face he so richly deserved. The indicator light flicked to green.
“Stop, all of you,” he barked with the authority of a drill sergeant. “Brace.”
They gawped at him.
“Now.” His tone forbade dissent.
They scurried to secure themselves, grabbing the nearest furniture. June threw an arm around Emily.
With a metallic clang, the room shuddered and lurched. The deck of cards fell to the floor.
The hatch hissed and swung open. A fresh-faced junior lieutenant stepped inside and gave Joe a snappy salute. Joe forced himself to stand, fighting the unfamiliar gravity, and returned the salute.
“Welcome to staging terminal three, sir,” the lieutenant said. “I see you’re out of quarantine a few days early. Someone must have prioritised your medical scans.”
“You’re scheduled to go dirtside in seventy two hours. You have the run of the station until you drop. Recreational facilities are forward. Games and toys are on deck seven for the kids. The Lovell lounge below the observation deck is open.” He tapped his clipboard. “It’s shriek metal tonight.”
Chloe looked like she was going to burst. She lived for that garbage.
“Sorry, kids, they serve alcohol in the lounge, so adults only.”
“Sixteen and over.”
“What?” she stammered.
“Sir?” the white uniformed officer took off his hat. “It’s 23:00 station time. My shift just ended. With your permission, may I escort the young lady to the lounge?”
Chloe blanched and clutched her new dress to her chest.
“Give her a few minutes to get ready, would you? It’s her birthday. Be nice.”
“You heard the man, kids. Get out.” Sam and Emily scrambled to find their shoes.
“Do you need a hand getting ready, Chloe?” June asked. Chloe’s head bobbed up and down.
Joe caught a glimpse of a bay window in the hall. It took his breath away. The purple planet in all its glory.
Mars. Their new home.
The iron oxide deserts, the deep blue of the fresh oceans, only a few centuries old now, filled the window. No longer red, not quite blue yet, the planet he’d only seen as a purple dot in the night sky was before him. He dabbed at his eyes.
Emily bounced beside Sam. “We didn’t sing happy birthday.”
“Later,” Joe said. “Go have fun.”
When Chloe came out, she was stunning. Was she only sixteen?
“This is the best birthday in the whole wide world, Dad.” She gave him a quick hug in a rush of flowery perfume, took the Lieutenant’s arm, and dashed away. His heart melted.
June’s arm snuck around his waist. “What about us? Want to go up to the observation deck?”
Joe pulled the hatch shut, dogged it, and hit the locking mechanism.